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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 794

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This is the grave of Benjamin Franklin.

I don’t think it’s really necessary to write an entire biography of Franklin here. His life is so well-known, more so than perhaps any of the Founders, with the possible exception of Jefferson. Even Washington is less known, if only because Washington was less knowable. So just a few points here.

First, it’s worth nothing how the Autobiography went so far to set up the narrative of pulling yourself up your bootstraps, the beginnings of the myths really set into American literature by the pedophile priest Horatio Alger. It’s a great book in terms of teaching early American history. Franklin definitely did rise from not much to a whole lot. His focus on self-reliance fits into the larger Enlightenment structure in which he lived of course. It’s popularity said a lot about the myths in which Americans were already starting to believe about themselves and how those would carry forward into the future. I’m far from blaming Franklin for the weak welfare state of the modern United States. I am however saying that one can see the roots of our problems in creating a just and relatively equal society in Franklin’s own thoughts and writings.

Second, Franklin totally should have died in his lightning experiment. He wasn’t dumb enough to use a kite to try and get it hit by lightning. He used it to collect an electrical charge from a storm cloud. But still, his chances of dying through this experiment were very high. In fact, a similar experiment killed the Russian scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann in 1753. As for his other scientific experiments, certainly the man embodied the Enlightenment in America more than any other person. Jefferson did too, but Franklin was before him and his life more perfectly affiliated with the peak of the period.

Third, if Franklin and Jefferson are the epitomes of the Enlightenment in the U.S., they shared that other core belief of the Scientific Revolution–white supremacy. When commenters here say that phrenology was not a real science, they are just wrong about that. The racism inherent in science was baked in from the beginning of the Enlightenment because it was racist white men who started the Scientific Revolution, attempting to find out, among other things, why whites were superior to all other humans. As Ibram Kendi delves into in Stamped from the Beginning, Franklin was absolutely central to this. For instance, in his 1751 book Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin stated that “I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind,” and therefore perhaps the U.S. should exclude all Africans. Yes, later in his career, Franklin did become president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Believing in racial superiority did not necessarily mean one believed in slavery. His critique of slavery was that England allowing the slave trade was turning white people into Black people. When presented with evidence of highly artistic Black people such as Phyllis Wheatley, Franklin go so far as to admit that a very few might have some aspects of civilization about them. But in 1770, when Franklin was lobbying the British crown for the harsh slave code of Georgia, he said that the majority of slaves were “of a plotting Disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful, and cruel in the highest Degree.” Even at the point when he was advocating abolition in 1790, he publicly stated Blacks fell below “the common standard of the human species.”

Fourth, being anti-Black did not make Franklin unusual to the European scientists and philosophers. They too were attempting to show through the scientific method how whites were the superior race. And so when Franklin went to Europe for political reasons, he was a big hit. His main diplomatic skill was actually liking Europeans and European culture while also playing up the ridiculousness of the U.S., thus the coonskin hat he would never have worn in the U.S. Contrast that this to that stodgy old Puritan John Adams who had little diplomatic skill because he had such a contempt for the entirety of European culture, especially the French. Franklin had to go around cleaning up Adams’ messes during the American Revolution.

Fifth, Franklin was not exactly a vegetarian but was one of the first Americans to question eating meat. He did stop entirely for awhile before being tempted by the smell of fried cod while he was sailing from Boston. He learned of the existence of tofu and hoped to spread the soybean in America in order to spread it as a healthful food. He talked about how meat is in fact murder. On the other hand, given his long problems with gout, one suspects that Franklin was eating his fair share of rich meats, not to mention all the wine. Still, an interesting point about the man that doesn’t get discussed too often.

Well, there’s more than enough to discuss about Franklin, both with what I listed and all the other things that you all already know about the lending society and the bifocals and the stove and the diplomacy and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, etc. So we will leave it here.

Benjamin Franklin is buried in Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As for his wife Deborah, he basically abandoned her in the colonies while he traipsed around Europe and they didn’t even see each other for the last ten years of her life, before her death in 1774.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! I can also explain the weird angle of the photo. This trip took place in February 2020, just before the world stopped. As it turns out, for ice reasons, Christ Church Burial Ground is closed in the winter. I was super bummed. But I looked around the edges and lo and behold, Franklin is right at the edge of the cemetery. So I put my camera between the fence posts and snapped this photo. If you would like this series to visit other of the founders (I hate the term “Founding Fathers, which Warren Harding coined of all people), you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Jay is in Rye, New York and Patrick Henry is in Aspen, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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